Review: The KGB Plays Chess

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Chess politics is back - in just three days, after a long and memorable election race, we'll finally know if Anatoly Karpov will be the next FIDE President. In truth, politics has always played an important role in the chess world, especially in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The KGB Plays Chess by Boris Gulko, Viktor Korchnoi and others, movingly documents some of the most shocking episodes in Soviet chess politics, in which Karpov was often involved in a rather different role.

The KGB Plays Chess, published this fall by Russell Enterprises, claims, among other things, that Karpov was in fact a KGB agent with the code name "Raul", and was helped in various ways by the Russian secret police to keep his world championship title, which he won by default in 1975, up until the termination of his first match against Kasparov, ten years later.These claims make it immediately obvious that the book is an important and unique project. It's a collaboration of no less than four authors: GM's Boris Gulko and Viktor Korchnoi, acclaimed Russian journalist Yuri Felshtinsky and former KGB colonel Vladimir Popov. The KGB Plays Chess sheds light on the role and influence of the KGB, the former Soviet secret police, on some of the best chess players of all time. Many of the claims and facts that are in this book are still completely ignored in Russia today.

Polish GM Michal Krasenkow reading the Russian edition of the book in Khanty-Mansiysk. The photo was taken by Vladimir Barsky, who reviewed the book for the German magazine Schach. He says that many Russians are trying to ignore the book altogether.

Boris Gulko, currently living in the USA, is one of the most remarkable chess grandmasters in the history of our game. He and his wife Anna, a WGM herself, were allowed to emigrate from Moscow only in 1986, almost ten years after they first tried to apply for emigration from the Soviet Union. In this period, they were blocked, harrassed and humiliated by the KGB and the Soviet regime in ways Viktor Korchnoi feared when he himself defected from the USSR in 1976 and was declared 'persona non grata' by the communist forces. These 'forces' included many strong chess players, most prominently, Anatoly Karpov, whose reign as Chess World Champion almost fully coincided with Gulko's struggle for freedom.The book, and especially the lengthy chapter written by Gulko, made a deep impression on me of which I am still recovering. Before revealing some of the truly scandalous and sensational contents of the book, I want to address a few of the book's drawbacks and my solution for them. While I think this book should be read by anyone interested in chess history and politics, I have some problems with the way it is presented to the reader. The first of those is the fact that the chapters are ordered in a way that will, I fear, confuse readers.

GM Boris Gulko | Photo © James F. Perry, posted on Wikipedia under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 license

The core of the book is the story of Boris Gulko and his escape from the clutches of the Soviet system. Therefore, not to begin the book with his story, as is the case in the current edition, is in my view an editorial mistake. The first chapter contains the 'evidence' Popov and Felshtinsky have collected for the things the KGB did to Soviet chess players (and what some of those players did themselves), and clearly it is important to show that the claims Gulko (and Korchnoi and Kasparov) have made in the past can now, for the first time, be confirmed by someone from inside the KGB itself.The problem is that Popov and Felshtinsky do not know the ins and outs of the chess world well enough (more about this later on), so their story - which is, after all, about the chess world - is at many points highly confusing. They admirably make up for this lack of knowledge by presenting an overload of facts, names and incidents that supposedly stem from the KGB archives and/or Popov's memory. However, no actual evidence (in the form of document scans, archive copies, etc.) is presented in the book. On top of that, there isn't a single footnote refering to existing documents to corroborate the claims the authors make in the book. This is a serious handicap for a chapter that is supposed to be about 'evidence' of some truly shocking 'facts':

Tigran Petrosian, world chess champion, was recruited in 1973 by officer Anatoly Smaznov of the First Department of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB.Lev Polugaevsky was recruited in 1980 by Lieutenant Colonel Igor Perfiliev of the Eleventh Department of the Fifth Directorate of the KGB.Rafael Vaganian was recruited in 1983 by the Fifth Department of the Armenian KGB. Vaganian worked with Soviet grandmasters, including trips abroad.Eduard Gufeld was recruited in 1981 by Igor Perfiliev. (...)

These are some pretty interesting claims, but as is well knows, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It's largely absent. Apart from this serious lack of concrete evidence (making one suspicious even of claims that are probably factually correct!), Popov and Felshtinsky's style is often not exactly 'factual' but more reminiscent of a genre that has always been popular in Russian literature: novels about (petty) criminals, such as, say, the famous The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov or Dead Souls by Gogol. Here's an example:

When the first president of the International Olympic Committee, Vitaly Smirnov, learned about this strange appointment, he asked: "Is this the same Gavrilin who cuts salami at Gramov's dacha?" Gavrilin's salami-slicing skills compensated for his general lack of culture and inability to communicate with people. He would shock international sports representatives who visited Moscow before the Goodwill Games in 1984 and in later years by taking a greasy newspaper out of his briefcase, in the car on the way from the airport, and extracting from it a salami, which he would then proceed to slice. After that, his guest would be invited to split a bottle of vodka.

While it is certainly true that anecdotes can sometimes reveal useful background information about important persons, note the somewhat clumsy style of the authors, who effectively use the same salami joke no less than three times in a single paragraph. Not exactly Gogol. Equally clumsy is their knowledge of some well-known (to chess players) facts in the history of chess. Thus, they describe the last phase of first Karpov-Kasparov match as follows: "In what seemed to many to be a hopeless situation for Kasparov, he suddenly started winning game after game." Well, not exactly, and in fact Gulko later on sets the record straight by describing how the match really went in a much more confident (and correct) manner.Which brings us to my solution for reading the book in an understandable way: start with Chapter Two (Gulko's story, about which more later on) and only after reading this, turn to chapter by Popov and Felshtinsky. It will give you a proper frame of reference and you will also be able to make more sense of the name spaghetti the authors present in the first chapter - which, by the way, is not lacking in shocking facts claims.For instance, both former FIDE President Florencio Campomanes and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch are mentioned as KGB agents serving the wishes of the Soviet regime. Anatoly Karpov himself, too, was a KGB agent (code name "Raul"). In fact, according to this book, Karpov won both matches against Korchnoi (Baguio 1978 and Merano 1981) because he received help from the KGB. For instance, Korchnoi's son, Igor, was held in prison during both matches. But things were apparently even more extreme than this:

The operational group from the KGB also included poisonous substances experts, whose task it was to monitor Karpov's food intake and bowel movements. Their mission was to prevent anyone from putting anything in Karpov's food that could negatively influence the health of the Soviet world champion. In addition, these experts had in their possession special substances that provoked anxiety, caused sleep disturbances, and raised blood pressure. Agents from the operational group were able covertly to enter the premises occupied by Kortchnoi and his team and to work their lodgings over with these substances.According to the plan worked out by the KGB, if the match were to take a turn that was unfavorable for Karpov, Korchnoi would be given a toxic substance that caused congestive heart failure leading to death. But this was naturally consided only a last resort - if Karpov started losing. (...) But Korchnoi lived, because he lost.

Korchnoi vs Karpov in 1978

At such moments in the book, a nice photocopy of the actual list of 'poisonous substances' from the experts, or a written order by a KGB official, would have been a nice bonus for readers with a skeptically inclined attitude. Still, even if only 5% of what's in Popov and Felshtinksy's story is true, it's still an absolutely horrific and important account of what playing chess in the Soviet Union under these circumstances was like. Chess players in the free West can only imagine.Interesting though the first chapter of The KGB Plays Chess is, it's pale compared to the second, written by Boris Gulko. This is probably the most impressive personal life story I've ever read after The Diary of Anne Frank and Celine's Journey to the End of Night. It's difficult to even begin describing what it is, exactly, that's so compelling about this story of despair, hope and, ultimately, triumph. Is it Gulko's cynicism?

My first contact with the KGB probably occured even before my birth. I was born at the beginning of 1947 in Germany, and I don't think that the pregnancy of the wife of an officer in the Soviet occupation forces would have been left unregistered in the annals of the KGB.

Or his anecdotes, impregnated with sharp and deadly observations?

Once, in the autumn of 1976, I was coming back with the Burevestnik Sports Society team from the European Champions' Cup in the Swedish town of Lund. We spent a couple of hours in Copenhagen. In a large bookstore in the center of the city, I asked the sales clerk where I could buy books in Russian. An elderly Danish woman who was standing next to me turned to me and suggested, maliciously: "In Russia." This was an amusing joke. In bookstores in Russia at that time one could only buy ideological garbage.

His ability to combine personal honesty with profound insight?

"Understand," a [Czechoslovakian] labor union activist from a large Ostrava factory explained to me, "we are not against socialism. But we want socialism with a human face."Socialism was something that I, strictly speaking, couldn't care less about. Chess is a capitalist game. The winner gets one point, the loser zero. There is no hint of egalitarianism. But with a human face! Not with Brezhnev's face, not with Krushchev's face, but with a human face! "Can such a thing be really possible, in the USSR, too?" I thought.

Or perhaps it is Gulko's bitter and reproachful self-reflection that pervades his story.

Yet I was still allowed to travel abroad at that time. Apparently, the fact that I had gone to Sweden and, fool that I was, returned to the USSR, had played a significant role.

Then again, it may be his loving portrayal of the people around him, the fellow "refuseniks" and his description of their way of life.

The wonderful essayist, poet, and prose writer Yuri Karabchievsky became a close friend of ours. Yuri was a pathologically honest and harmonious person. At the time we first met, not a single word of his had been published in the USSR, since he was physically incapable of working with publishers that were under control of censors. But Karabchievsky did not attempt to leave the Soviet Union either, since he felt that he was part of Russian culture. Yuri published his works in the West and earned a living by working as an engineer, an appliance technicial. The KGB did not grab him, most likely, because Karabchievsky was not an anti-Soviet writer; he was simply completely not Soviet, that is, he was honest and harmonious in every letter he wrote.

In the end, what probably most impressed me was Gulko's persistence in trying to "beat" the KGB in ways not unlike the game of chess is played: by constantly changing his strategy, applying various tactical measures and, ultimately, by showing his toughness and his fighting spirit. Gulko resorted to hunger strikes and endlessly attempted to organize demonstrations in Moscow, to mobilize Western chess players and journalists, everything because he believed he had a right: the right to move to another country.Somewhere halfway his story, I noticed that I was not bothered at all by the lack of concrete 'evidence' in this chapter. Then I understood why: Gulko's is a personal story, not a journalistic effort. That isn't to say the claims he makes aren't true. In fact, I'd say his version is even more reliable than Popov and Felshtinksy's because Gulko stays objective all the time. For example, in the following description of a spontaneous speech he delivers - right inside the lion's den - to plea for the release Igor Korchnoi, note how he can't help agreeing with his biggest enemies about the tournament's organization:

The main unpleasantness was waiting for them at the championship's closing ceremony. In the biggest hall of the Central Chess Club of the USSR, behind a long table, sat the Moscow officials. The hall was full of people. The officials began praising each one another for the tournament's excellent organization, wich was indeed good. At the end of the event, after they finished praising each other and began to relax, I walked up to the table and announced that I wanted to say a few words.

Also, Gulko convincingly describes how paranoia takes over when you're in a situation such as the refuseniks were under the Soviets. "In general, I didn't know anyone whom someone didn't suspect of being an informant." Such candid observations make it easy to believe him on other points - some of which are crass indeed. Especially Karpov - who was a known Soviet supporter at the time - finds himself at the receiving end in this book. The following fragment is striking not only because of its harshness towards the 12th World Champion, but also because it's a great, nuanced description of creativity under the Soviet regime, no doubt easily applicable in other situations:

Anatoly Karpov in those days was extraordinarily influential. He was a unique phenomenon in Soviet life, a genuinely exceptional figure in terms of creativity and at the same time faithful to the Communist Party and the KGB nomenklatura. Good writers were opposed to the government by definition. Only hacks like Safronov or Kochetov were loyal. (...) The great composer of the Soviet period, Dmitri Shostakovich, accepted all kinds of honors and official titles while he lived, but when he died he left behind memoirs that made Soviet officials' skin crawl. The most prominent representative of the scientific world in those days was Andrei Sakharov.Only in chess was the Soviet nomenklatura able to raise the kind of crop that had, in effect, been the goal of the Revolution of 1917. Furthermore, Karpov had the right ethnic background - by contrast, way, with the Jewish ideological Communist Botvinnik. And a "faithful" Communist was not at all the same thing as an "ideological" one. (...) In any politicial situation Karpov knew which statement was the right statement. I remember an interview he gave at the time to the magazine Studenchesky Meridian.Karpov was asked to describe the most memorable event in his life. Any loyal Soviet citizen would have replied, of course, that it was not his first kiss or his victory in the world chess championship (...) buy his meeting with Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (...). Karpov began his answer in exactly this way. But in contrast to an ordinary Soviet person, Karpov did not stop there and continued: "There was another memorable event in my life: the adoption of the New Soviet Constitution of 1977."

Again, a footnote referring to the page on which volume of mentioned magazine this interview can be found would have been nice, but that doesn't mean it is a rather disillusioning (and, after reading this book I suppose, correct) picture of the very same person who's currently running for FIDE President...Anyway, I guess you should read the stories about Karpov, Korchnoi and Kasparov (and many others) yourself and judge whether you believe all of them or not. Some them annoyingly overlap with what Popov and Felshtinsky write about - but despite an excellent index at the end of the book, the texts themselves don't seem to have been cross-checked for factual consistency. For example, what exactly happened in 1983 during the negotiations of the (postponed) Kasparov-Korchnoi semi-finals is portrayed in three fundamentally different ways by Popov&Felshtinsky, Gulko and Korchnoi (who wrote the lengthy Afterword).

The Russian edition of the book, published in 2009 in Moscow

That said, I think the most memorable part of the book is actually connected to Gulko's own fate. In his constant conflict with the KGB - who bugged his phone and appartment for years and actively followed not only him and his wife, but also members of his family - he also discovers some pretty cool (I thought) things, such as that shouting in public that a certain person is, in fact, a KGB agent, makes the agent run away as quickly as possible: "there were certain rules that they, too, had to obey. Thus, their membership in the 'organization' could not be revealed in public."As Mikhail Gorbachev comes in power ("a big change from the three half-corpses who had reigned before him") in 1985, Gulko and his wife Anya sense a change in the air and they ultimately seize it - but not before overcoming some terrible ordeals lasting several years, not only including "petty tricks by the KGB", but also, among others, prolonged detention and extreme psychological warfare. One clear but terrible picture emerges from these pages: if you were a chess player (or indeed any other citizen) in those days and you didn't like the Soviet Union or the KGB, then you were in deep, deep shit. Fortunately for him, Gulko's story has a happy end - but (as he points out himself many times) countless Soviet dissident stories do not.The Afterword by Viktor Korchnoi - probably the most famous chess dissident of all time - is interesting in its own right. Apart from more or less expected sneers towards the usual suspects ("the shameless Campomanes"), it is also full of nuance. For example, Korchnoi is quite forgiving towards KGB colonel Viktor Litvinov, Kasparov's former "manager", who is treated rather less mercifully in other chapters. But look what Korchnoi writes about him:

The [first] world championship match between Karpov and Kasparov would soon begin. I saw the entire Soviet chess machine before me. But the only person who I felt was for Kasparov was Litvinov. And I found a convenient moment, called him aside, and took him for a walk in order to tell him some of my observations about the strong and weak sides of Karpov's game and behavior. A colonel of the KGB and an inveterate enemy of that organization and of the Soviet Union - strolling about London in peaceful conversation!Naturally, there were snitches who immediately informed about Colonel Litvinov's "dubious behaviour" and he was reprimanded by the high command. My apologies to Litvinov. I did not want to create difficulties for him. But I hope that my comments were useful to Kasparov...

Kasparov's place in The KGB Plays Chess is a minor curious thing itself. All authors praise him to no end. In the final chapter of the book, a (rather mysterious) Letter from Vladimir Popov (to Felshtinsky) is reproduced. It is in part about the situation in Putin's Russia (the letter dates from 2007), but it is also about Kasparov. Popov "officially declares" that "for the entire period of his sports career in the USSR, Kasparov was under constant surveillance by the KGB". While this is at least credible, Popov then goes on in rather populist fashion:

Under surveillance, Kasparov proved himself to be a person of true humanist and democratic convictions, never making any deals with the authorities that went against his own notions. By doing so, he sometimes placed his professional future at risk, but he never compromised his principles. That is just the kind of man he is.

Popov's letter is a strange and somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion to an absolutely gripping read. There are simply too many noteworthy passages to quote them all. This review can only offer a glimpse of what is described, but I hope I've convinced you that you should read this book, even if you do it in a different order than was intended by the publisher. Even if you're not particularly interested in chess politics, be it current or historic, or even the Soviet Union, you should read the second chapter of The KGB Plays Chess as an inspiring testimony of hope, courage and human survival.


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